John Nolen gave St. Pete a plan to embrace nature, but the city passed

City Wilds.

John Nolen gave St. Pete a plan to embrace nature, but the city passed
Library of Congress

My neighbor Bill and I launch into Bartlett Pond at a muddy flat off 22nd Avenue South. Traffic buzzes down Fourth Street. A light current carries my kayak through the mangrove tunnel, crowded with prop roots, plastic bottles and Styrofoam. I brush back branches at the channel's mouth and enter the little lake, a jewel hidden along St. Petersburg's Salt Creek.

From this point, I could paddle southeast to the marina district, onto Bayboro Harbor, and into Tampa Bay. Or I could fight the maze of prop roots upstream to Lake Maggiore, taking out my kayak at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.

Today, instead, we are content to explore the pond.

Cut the street noise and you could say we were in the Ten Thousand Islands. A hard rain fell the previous night, and red mangrove branches drooped over the turgid water. Their star-shaped yellow flowers trail into long beans. Snook roil under the surface.

I make a cursory bird count. Great white egret. Great blue. Osprey, poised in the lights of the nearby football field. My wife Julie and I have lived three blocks from this pond for 20 years, and she did not know it existed. 

But it is precisely the proximity wilderness to our daily lives that makes St. Petersburg special. 

For a city that was made to capitalize on Florida's natural beauty, the question has never changed. How do we manage our relationship between the built and non-built environment?

In March 1922 the godfather of American city planning, John Nolen, paid St. Petersburg a visit. Nolen could not believe what he saw: a municipality blessed with water on two sides, citrus and tropical fruit for the taking, bougainvillea exploding, and of course, the early signs of sprawl.

Hoping to bring order to a runaway real estate boom, city leaders invited Nolen to draw up a plan. The following March, Nolen was back in town with a strategy of controlled growth, St. Petersburg Today, St. Petersburg Tomorrow.” Few cities have been gifted with a blueprint of such quality. 

Recognizing both a vulnerability to flooding and the potential of still-undeveloped beaches, Nolen recommended a greenbelt from downtown to Boca Ciega Bay. A hurricane had dumped 11 feet of storm surge into Ybor City in October 1921, so storms were fresh in memory. 

Maps produced by Nolen's office show a natural buffer, through the low-lying swales, across the Pinellas Peninsula. Think of a subtropical remix of Boston's Fens.

Bartlett Pond, the overgrown lake I am paddling with Bill today, would have fit within this greenbelt. In Nolen's words: "Beginning with the larger Waterfront Park on Tampa Bay the scheme would be carried by Salt Creek Parkway along the shores of that stream to Lake Maggiore then ... west to the Boca Ciega waterfront."

Sadly, the Nolen plan was never adapted. Managed growth did not square with quick profits. Bruce Stephenson, Environmental Studies professor at Rollins College, details the unraveling in Visions of Eden: Urban Planning, and City Building in St. Petersburg, Florida.” Where Nolen saw a "ring of nature preserves encircling the lower peninsula," Stephenson writes, hawkers saw liberal meddling. (Nolen also would not demarcate the city's racial lines.) Following a hardball campaign, bankrolled by realtors and led by St. Petersburg's Evening Independent, voters struck the Nolen plan down.

Stephenson frames this history as a cautionary tale. The rush to develop over (rather than alongside) nature "still resemble the battles" fought today; "St. Petersburg had the chance to build a model city," Stephenson concludes, "but they turned away from this vision in a frenzy of speculation and banal boosting." 

The creek I am paddling, in fact, returns me to this old controversy. If I were to nose my kayak downstream, under the 18th Street bridge to Fourth Street, I would find history repeating itself. Promising an investment to the tune of $2 billion, a Miami developer looks to replace boat yards, empty lots, and a Salvation Army shelter with high-end housing and a convention center.

To facilitate this development, the city must alter its Coastal High Hazard Area, or CHHA, which checks growth in areas below the high-water mark of a Category 1 hurricane. At its last meeting, City Council voted 7-1 for letting the conversation continue.

My neighbor Bill, a Volvo-driving former Marine, opposes the changes. Viscerally. Bill worked for 16 years as a television journalist, and having served in Việt Nam, he has no patience for political duplicity. 

Truth be told, the arguments for changing the CHHA are thin. Tightened construction code in low-lying areas, the city maintains, will result in safer buildings during the inevitable "storm event." Luxury waterfront residences, others maintain, will protect affordable housing elsewhere. 

No one opposes affordable housing. Or construction that withstands wind and rain. But the goals for this measure were never affordable housing, and permitting in coastal areas falls out of step with national best practice. 

I want to know, what would John Nolen think? “St. Petersburg Today, St. Petersburg Tomorrow” functioned on the premise that good planning makes economic sense. A careful growth strategy, Nolen argued, could buoy property values; enhance quality of life; and save against future expenses of disaster mitigation. 

Hoping to understand the city's position, maybe close the gap across a century, I called Derek Kilborn, St. Peterburg's very thoughtful manager of Planning and Historic Preservation. Kilborn is familiar with the 1923 plan, noting that a map by Nolen's team hangs outside his office. 

I asked, could St. Petersburg revive the greenbelt idea? "Intuitively if you look at a map, there is potential," Kilborn said, offering a personal perspective. But construction since then, particularly Interstate 275 and along 34th Street, would make a greenbelt almost impossible to implement. 

The webpage for the city's planning department used to link to “St. Petersburg Today, St. Petersburg Tomorrow,” alongside other historic documents. But those pages have since been taken down.

While I had Kilburn on the phone, I asked what happened. If you do not know where to look, Nolen's unpublished proposal can be impossible to find. 

The loss is ours as a city. Within his profession, John Nolen's name is legendary. He deserves a place in the local hall of fame, alongside Cabeza de Vaca, Jack Kerouac, Elie Wiesel, and Angela Bassett. Lewis Mumford identified him in 1927 as the one planner who "realizes where the path of intelligent and humane achievement will lead in the next generation."

Kilborn's office has digitized our treasury of references, from 1923 to the present. Yet we have somehow buried a prophetic voice.

As debates over development in coastal areas continue, St. Petersburg should come back to John Nolen. For a city founded on proximity to Florida's wild beauty, it makes sense to consider first the natural contours of water and land. 

John Nolen, maybe not known outside academic circles, offered a model that is more relevant now than ever. In this way, he reminds me of Bartlett Pond. He left St. Petersburg an overlooked gem of a plan, tucked behind the mangroves, that awaits our exploration—like a little lake, teaming with wildlife after the rain.

Thomas Hallock teaches nature writing and early American literature at USF's St. Petersburg campus. Learn more about the CHHA via

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